Tag Archives: Religion

Religion, Social Justice, and Hope

Jonathan Morgan

message from heavenDon’t worry- having told the story about cotton mill owners using religious leaders to suppress mill workers’ protests, I’m not going to turn around and talk about how religion promotes social justice.  We all know that’s not always true.  But the piece on religion, cotton, and coal left with a hanging question.  Why did religion suppress social justice in one situation and support justice in the other case?  I hinted at how social context determines the shape of religion, but it’s not the only factor.  As much as religion is social, it’s also an individual phenomenon, and differences in the individual psyche play a major role in the shape religion takes.

Earlier this month, the psychologist Steven Sandage and I published an article on the relationship between social justice, religion, and hope.  Social justice can mean many different things to different.  Some see it as working for equal access to healthy foods while others are more concerned with economic injustice.  So when we’re studying social justice, we look primarily at people’s commitment, not the specific type of work they’re passionate about.  I’m not presenting our work as though it unravels the complex forces within an individual psyche that shape religion to be concerned about justice in some instances and seemingly indifferent in others – but I think it does provide a step towards understanding that process.

Our study focused on an evangelical community where we sought to understand how particular types of spirituality and particular experiences of hope related to individuals’ commitment to social justice.  Evangelicals have pretty widely diverging views on social justice.  I know, social justice may seem like a no-brainer common denominator for Christian communities, but for a disturbing example of how some argue against social justice see Smalling & Smalling.  They argue, somewhat confusingly, that working for social justice leads people to lose sight of the real Christian message about God’s love.  The same ambiguity between religion in the cotton mills and coal mines exists today, and we wanted to see what might predict the stance evangelicals take on social justice.

We measured spirituality, hope and social justice commitment each through surveys.  Of course this method of research runs into all the limitations surveys always face.  Surveys are blunt instruments – they don’t capture the complexity of each phenomenon.  We didn’t follow people around to see how their commitment to social justice was acted upon or how they nurtured hope in their lives. I’d be fascinated to read such an in-depth study.  We couldn’t capture such nuance, but we were able to collect information from over 200 people – which is a wide enough swath that any emerging patterns demand some sort of explanation.

For example, say that among 200 people, some report experiencing a lot of hope while some report experiencing very little hope.  And say that those who report experiencing hope also consistently report a strong commitment to social justice.  That sort of pattern reveals something, right?  At the very least it demands some explanation.

That correlation between hope and social justice is, in fact, one of the relationships that we found.  Another emerged between reports of positive religious coping skills and commitment to social justice.  Positive religious coping is a technical, and bulky, way to talk about using religious practices when faced with stressful situations.  If you find comfort or strength in prayer when facing grief or a challenge, then that’s an example of positive religious coping.  The people who engaged with religion in this supportive way also were more likely to report a commitment to social justice.

That’s interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, it flies in the face of Smalling and Smalling’s  concerns that social justice is purely a secular interest (not that we needed much convincing of that fact, but it’s helpful to have some empirical weight in that debate).  More importantly, it begins to answer questions about how individuals use religion in different ways.

Sandage has worked with the theologian LeRon Shults to develop a model that uses the ways we experience our relationships with each other to understand different types of spirituality.  There are a wide variety of ways people relate to each other – trust, hostility, ambivalence, and avoidance are just a few.  These different relational styles arise out of personality types and past experiences, along with current circumstances that may change our typical mode of relating.  The point of the model is that these ways of relating with each other are often closely correlated with the ways people relate to what they consider sacred.

In our research, the people who reported seeking out the sacred for support during times of stress also reported more of a commitment to social justice.  This sort of positive religious coping is reflective of a healthy, stress-buffering style of relating – like turning to friends and family in hard times.  It’s no surprise that this style of relating would be helpful if you’re engaged in the stressful work of social justice.  Activists need all the support they can get.  But it becomes more interesting to consider that our style of relating may be one of the things that actually shapes religion in such a way that it supports social justice.

Surveys can’t tell us whether a healthy relational spirituality leads to a commitment to social justice or vice-versa.  But at the very least they help us see some of the patterns surrounding religion when it becomes such different things to different people.

Religion, Depression, & Cows

Jonathan Morgan

Holstein cow with huge tongueFrom its earliest days psychology has been curious about religion.  Sometimes that curiosity tilts towards hostility – Freud, of course, didn’t have many good things to say about religion- “infantile neurosis” is a choice phrase.  But at least four of his twenty-something books deal explicitly with the topic.  So it’s safe to say he was curious.  More recently, psychologists’ curiosity has tilted towards openness or outright encouragement.  Part of that recent movement has involved an enormous amount of research on the impact religion has on mental health.

You’ve probably read about these studies.  “Spirituality is a Key Element of Mental Health” or “New Study links belief in  ‘Punitive God’ to Emotional Problems.”  If not, you should check out the Punitive God one – it’s got a great picture of an angry God.  But the story these studies tell isn’t as neat and clean as they make it seem.

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Religion, Cotton, & Coal

Jonathan Morgan

WorkerI often write about how religion is an ambiguous, complex, hard-to-define thing.  Okay, that’s not entirely true.  I end up only referencing the complexity of religion along the way to criticizing science for treating religion too simply.  But I never really give examples of that complexity.  They’re simple enough to find: religion helped spark the civil rights movement in the US… and the Crusades in Medieval Europe.  These large-scale examples are common knowledge, and are often wielded by pundits either for or against religion.  But using examples at that scale might make us lose sight of the local, everyday ambiguity of religion.

So, instead of Crusades, I’m going to talk about coal and textiles.*  The Industrial Revolution dramatically changed many communities.  Throughout the piedmont of the southern US, cotton mills went up and were busy producing textiles.  In the mountains of southern Appalachia, mines were opened and people were busy extracting coal.  And we’re talking about the Bible Belt, so a rural evangelical form of Protestantism set the religious atmosphere for both communities.  But when a series of pressures in the 1920s and 1930s strained the relationship between workers and their bosses, religion worked in two very different ways.

For the cotton mills, the 1920s brought along a steady decline in the market following World War I.  This, in combination with increased competition and lower prices for goods, led mill owners to cut wages, fire employees, and then demand more work from those left.  This was not a good work environment.  During this time the way to try and make things better was to unionize.

So the textile workers tried that.  They began strikes and professional organizers showed up from New England to try and help.  The Loray Mill Strike is the most famous example from this movement.  But these efforts were short-lived.  Local citizens were outraged and attacked the picket lines.  Things quickly turned violent, with people killed on both sides.  You can gain a sense of the atmosphere from reading about the trials that ensued, where those accused of killing strikers were acquitted and the workers accused of conspiracy and murder were found guilty.  It was a lousy time to be a mill worker.

This may seem far from the purpose at hand, which, you’ll remember, is providing an example of the ambiguity of religion.  But this story’s relevance to religion should quickly become apparent when I add the details that many of the mobs sang hymns as they attacked the strikers.  Some preachers preached against the strikes, but more simply ignored them and tried to turn the workers’ attention away from the strikes.  The popular sentiment was that union organizers were attempting to destroy religion.  And this sentiment may have been right – the union organizers were a group of communists who largely saw religion as the opiate Marx described.  There are accounts of one organizer kicking a Bible out of the hands of a mill worker’s hands, saying- “No one believes that book now.”

What began as a push for better wages and working conditions became a battle between communism and religion.  The striking mill workers were associated with Marx, and therefore the religious sensibilities of the Piedmont community sided with the owners against the workers.  The irony of the whole situation is that the union organizers’ assumptions about religion became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Religion became an opiate, preserving the status quo, in part because the organizers aligned themselves against it.

This didn’t have to be the case.

To see more of the ambiguity of religion, we’ll travel a little west to the southern Appalachian mining communities.  This isn’t an arbitrary comparison – the two communities were remarkably similar.  Both mining camps and mill towns were isolated communities, made up almost entirely of workers and their families.  In both cases the companies built and controlled the schools and churches for the community, along with the only available stores.  In other words, both groups were pretty well cut off from other resources and influences.  But this isolation isn’t the only similarity; both groups also felt the stress of low wages, hard work, and poor living conditions.  When they were striking they were expressing a very real frustration and need.

The control mill companies had over the church allowed them to use religion to suppress or deflect their workers’ frustration.  But this strategy backfired in the coal camps.  Company ministers in the coal camps preached against unions as “ungodly and wicked.”  Extolling a strong work ethic, they called union organizers “human lice.”  But the miners weren’t fooled.  As one miner said, “We are beginning to see the light for ourselves and realize that the company preachers are selling us out to the bosses for a mere mess of the [porridge].”

New religious leaders arose within the groups of miners and held clandestine services.  They would pray at picket lines and disrupt the company church services.  Baptist and Holiness churches outside of the company towns set up soup kitchens for evicted miners and helped support the strikes.  All of this work gave a religious and moral legitimacy to the miners’ struggle.

Think about the stark contrast between this situation and the mill towns where the workers’ struggle was religiously condemned.  In the mining communities, religion became a source of strength, giving the workers cohesion and a legitimacy that fostered their collective action.  Here religion was a liberator, not an opiate.  It’s no coincidence that the miners were able to successfully organize and sustain unions while the mill strikes were short-lived protests.

This is not to suggest that religion was the primary cause of success or failure in either case.  There are a multitude of historical, social, environmental, and political factors that affected how each situation turned out.  In fact, it’s safe to argue that these factors also determined, at least in part, whether religion became a liberator or an opiate.  But this doesn’t change the fact that religion was both.  This southern rural evangelical Protestantism worked in one instance to suppress workers’ protests, and in the other instance to support very similar protests.  That’s the ambiguity of religion.  So whenever you hear someone talking about how religion is bad or religion is good, don’t talk about the Crusades.  Tell them about cotton and coal – and how religion can be many things.

*This story comes from the sociologist Dwight Billings’ work, which relies on two books:
Liston Pope’s Millhands and Preachers
David Corbin’s Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields

Religion in the Brain-Scanner

Jonathan Morgan

MRI,brainLast week I wrote about the dangers of reducing experience down to the chemical reactions and physics of our bodies.  For a great look at the depths of this problem, check out my colleague David Rohr’s essay at Patheos.com.  But all this may leave you wondering whether this is really a danger.  Am I just arguing against a straw man or fighting windmills?  Don’t get me wrong, I think Don Quixote’s great, but here’s why I don’t think this is an imaginary debate.

Check out this paper from a group of neuroscientists and scholars in Maryland- “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief.”  I get super excited when I see titles like this.  Understanding the brain mechanisms beneath belief would help us understand how religion might have emerged in early human communities.  I’d likely regret it, but I wish I could time travel just to see those early communities begin to use language and form early rituals.  That’d be amazing!  Good academic papers are kind of like imaginary time machines that give us a glimpse into our past.  At least the good ones do.

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Free Will and the Brain

Jonathan Morgan

Young girl thinking with glowing brain illustrationA while ago, the social psychologist Roy Baumeister wrote a piece on free will for Slate.  In an age where neurobiologists claim to understand love because they understand some neural correlates, Baumeister’s philosophical piece is a breath of fresh air.  His argument hinges on the idea of causation, which is a good place to put any argument about free will.  When it comes down to it, isn’t whether we have free will a question about what causes our actions?  Saying that I’m writing this essay of my own free will is the same as saying that nobody is forcing me to write.

But when scientists claim that we have no free will, they aren’t talking about personal interactions.  They’re talking about physics and chemistry.  The idea is that we live in a world where cause and effect are determined by physical laws.  When my bike goes downhill, it goes quickly.  Thanks gravity!  When I put on my brakes, my bike stops.  Thanks friction!  When I hit those train tracks, I wreck.  Ouch!  We live in a physical world and that world is governed by predictable laws.  Physics is really good at describing those laws.  But does this mean that if we just had enough information about physics then we’d understand why I got on my bike in the first place?

No, that’s silly.  Baumeister makes this point by noting that each science deals with different causes.  More importantly, as we move up the ladder of complexity, new causes enter the picture.  Economics can’t, and shouldn’t, focus on the strong nuclear force as the cause of the European Debt Crisis.  No doubt, if there wasn’t the strong nuclear force (that’s the one that makes the nuclei of atoms hold together) there’d be no European Debt Crisis.  There probably wouldn’t be much. Thanks nuclear force!  But dependence isn’t the same as causation.

That’s all well and good when it comes to the difference between atoms and international economies.  But what about the leap from neurology to experience- is this too far to talk about causation?  Here we enter some murky ground and it’s not entirely clear how to proceed.

But I think Baumeister gives us a helpful guide.  Yes, experience depends on the brain working well.  And interesting things can be found by studying the brain.  For example, emotions are heavily involved in decision-making.  That’s worth knowing and reveals new aspects of our experience.  In the same way that physics constrains my bicycle, neurology likely constrains our experience.  Understanding some of those constraints can help us understand experience in new ways.  But to argue that the neurons firing cause certain experiences is likely to miss the point.

It misses the point because experience always happens on a social level.  Even if I’m alone in the woods, I’m still interacting with the woods.  So if you want to understand experience, are you better off looking at the interactions between neurons or the interactions between people and their environment?  Well, both, but looking at the level of the environment is probably going to be more meaningful.

So what does all this have to do with religion?  It hopefully raises the question: what is the appropriate level to study religion?  Should religion be studied like economics- focusing on the community level?  Or is it more appropriate to study religion at the psychological level, like personality or desires?  Are meaningful insights likely to come from neuroscience or physics?  Of course the answer to all these questions is, yes!  Each level will contain different insights about religion.

The larger point is that each level can’t be meaningfully reduced to those below it.  Doing so would cause you to miss essential pieces of religion.  If you were to argue that religion is all about psychological benefits, then you’d miss the larger social dynamics that forge religion through a history of conflict and politics.  Likewise, if neuroscientists find a pathway that lights up when people meditate, they can’t reduce religion to this stream of chemical juices.  That pathway may tell us some interesting things about religious experiences, but it’s not the only thing going on.  In fact, it may not even be the most relevant thing going on!

All levels are significant and they should be considered in tandem.  So as more research emerges about religion and the brain, be wary of any claims that religion is just such and such a neural pathway.  These notions are about as silly as claiming that free will doesn’t exist just because we depend on the physical environment.

Is Science a Religion?

Jonathan Morgan

ScientistBefore you scoff, try to take the question seriously. If you’re willing to do that, then your first question should be: what do I mean by religion? But definitions are slippery — it really depends who’s doing the defining. There are plenty of definitions that make my question ridiculous: for example, religion is belief in supernatural beings. But this definition is science’s own definition of religion. Shouldn’t it raise some suspicion that the times science seems the furthest from religion is when science is defining religion?

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Religion and Self Control

Jonathan Morgan

The hand of Golden Buddha image.Self-control may be one of the things that really distinguishes humans from other animals.  Ok, that’s not entirely true- my dog is using an incredible amount of self-control when he’s willing to sit and stay before going on a walk.  Nevertheless, self-control may have been one of the qualities that helped humans thrive in the evolutionary game.  When we exercise it, our ability to resist impulses, delay gratification, and persist through challenges makes it possible to work together in groups.  And let’s face it – without working together, our defenseless, slow, and awkward ancestors probably would’ve been eaten.  It turns out religion may have helped us preserve and grow this ability.

Last year, a group of researchers from Queen’s University conducted a series of experiments to see whether religion really is connected to self-control.  The experiments relied on a priming technique, which is psychology jargon for exposing someone to an idea or concept that will then change their behavior.  For example, have you ever noticed that after a friend tells you about a book or a new restaurant, you’re likely to notice that book when you walk by a bookstore or perk up when they mention that restaurant on the news?  I’m not saying that it’s not a coincidence when this happen, but it’s also an example of being primed.  Just as hearing the name of that book may change your attention, being primed with other concepts may change your behavior in more subtle ways.

In these experiments, participants were primed with religious ideas by simply unscrambling phrases that contained religious words.  If religion is connected to self-control, then this simple exposure would be enough to affect people’s self-control.   The psychologists conducting this research found just that.

Some of their techniques for measuring self-control may seem trite, but they’re small-scale ways to test people’s ability to delay gratification or persist through a challenge.  Researchers can’t just ask people to sit there and resist impulses.  One experiment told people that they would be paid for their time participating; they could come back the next day for $5 or return the next week for $6.  60% of those who were religiously primed waited a week, while 34% of people who just unscrambled a neutral phrase waited.  This modest example of delaying gratification wouldn’t tell us much by itself, but it fits with their other experiments to create a stronger argument.

In another test, they had participants drink a gross, but harmless, mixture of orange juice and vinegar.  The mixture was in 20 small cups, with 1 ounce in each cup.  People were told it was a test of motivation and that they’d be paid a nickel for each cup they drank.  People who were religiously primed drank nearly twice as much as those who weren’t.  Again, this may seem to be a trite measure of self-control, but it does get at people’s ability to persist through an unpleasant task.  And let’s face it- living requires dealing with plenty of unpleasant tasks.

The other two experiments supported the same conclusion.  When people were exposed to religious words, they exercised more self-control.  In one task religion even seemed to replenish people’s self-control.  If self-control is like a tank of gas, then religious concepts helped re-fuel people’s tanks in the midst of difficult tasks.  For a great summary of these other tasks see the religion scholar Nicholas DiDonato’s essay at ScienceOnReligion.org.

While these experiments are good at establishing a connection, they can’t really tell us the nature of that connection.  At best they seem to imply a causal connection, but whether religion fosters self-control by making people feel judged and compliant or strong and steady is still up for debate.

Either way you interpret the data, these experiments support the idea that religion may have played a key role in helping our ancestors work together in groups.  It’d be difficult to live in a cohesive group if people gave in to their aggressive impulses whenever they felt angry.  Even a cohesive group would have a hard time thriving if its members weren’t able to delay gratification in order to store up food or other resources.  Religion isn’t the cause of these features of self-control, but its ability to nurture self-control may have helped make it an integral part of evolving human communities.

American Judaism

Jonathan Morgan

LA TORAHEarlier this week, the Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life came out with a new portrait of Judaism in America.  The New York Times wrote up a quick summary  about how more and more American Jews are identifying as non-religious.  At first glance that’s not too unsurprising- you can see that increase as part of the rising number of Nones in America.  While the trend itself isn’t too shocking, it highlights an interesting question- what does it mean to be a non-religious Jew?  We’re so used to talking about ethnic Judaism, that we don’t stop to think about what the name reveals.  Is it possible to be a non-religious Christian or Muslim?

I’m not trying to be ridiculous- I’m trying to draw our attention to what we mean when we say non-religious.  Why does “non-religious Christian” sound wrong?  I think it’s because we have an implicit assumption that being Christian means believing certain things and that being non-religious means rejecting those beliefs.  Put the two together and you sound as ridiculous as talking about a non-fruit-fruit (a tomato perhaps?).  The reason it doesn’t sound meaningless when we say “non-religious Jew” is that we have the ethnic or cultural category for Judaism as well.

But perhaps that cultural category reveals part of the ambiguity in the definition of religion.  Many religious scholars – Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, Mary Douglas, and Nancy Ammerman, to name a few – argue that religion is way more about what people do than what they believe.  Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, a total boss in the study of comparative religion of the 20th century, even went so far as to argue that talking about religion as if it were a thing is a bit silly.  He, of course, said it more eloquently and professionally than that, but the point is that religion is largely a way of life that is integrated into actions and thoughts.  It only becomes a system of beliefs when we call it religion and begin to analyze it as such.

When we say non-religious Jew, we are straddling two different categories of religion.  There’s the sense that religion is a cultural way of life that’s fundamental to one’s identity.  And there’s the sense that religion is a set of ideas and beliefs that we might change around like furniture.  I think most people exist somewhere between these two extremes, because religion is both.  But the dominant assumption in America, and most of Europe, is that religion is about belief – which is why non-religious Christian sounds silly but non-religious Jew, or non-religious Hindu, for that matter, doesn’t.

If we’re surveying and studying religion, then we have to be aware of these different categories and deliberate about which we are using.  Professed beliefs are a bit easier to study, but as this most recent poll by Pew revealed, they’re not always the most fitting for how people think about themselves.  Given all these difficulties, it’s important to let people define themselves – kudos to the Pew forum for doing just that.  Following their lead, I’ll shelf the category non-religious Christian, at least for now because, when it comes down to it, people don’t actually describe themselves that way.

Thinking Styles and Religious Belief

Jonathan Morgan

Left and right brain hemispheres sketchy doodlesDid you know you have two minds?  Over the past decade, psychologists and cognitive scientists have been slowly building a consensus around this idea.  They talk about it in different ways.  Some say we have a rational mind and an intuitive mind.  Others argue (and I think they’re right) that both minds are rational, so it’s better to say “reflective” and intuitive.  Regardless of what you call them, the theory is becoming more and more persuasive.  It’s established enough to earn the psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize in economics!  He, by the way, just called them System 1 and 2- not super creative.  If this is how our mind is organized, where do religious beliefs, or religious experiences, fit in?

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Statistics on Religion- Part IV

Jonathan Morgan

World Map, World Religions MandalaAfter a couple of weeks talking about Isaac Asimov, and how cool he is, the hope and dangers of neuroscience, and the humanities (whew!), I’m back to statistics on religion.  This time, I’m looking at the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), which is like a large warehouse full of information about religion.  It’d take years to really explore this site.  For example, they have stats on thirty different branches of the Pentecostal Church in the US, which is one of twenty Christian denominations in the US, which is one of 196 nations in the world.  Like I said, it’d take a while to explore it all.

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